By T. Rees Shapiro
Friday, September 3, 2010; B06
After four days and five nights of combat in temperatures that dipped to 35 degrees below zero, Jerome M. McCabe's toes were numb and black from frostbite. His right arm and leg were bleeding from shrapnel wounds inflicted by a Chinese mortar round.
The 23-year-old Maryland native and self-described "wet-nosed lieutenant" was the fire control officer for an Army artillery unit engaged in what historians considered some of the bloodiest fighting of the Korean War: the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
By the night of Dec. 1, 1950, only 385 of the original 3,000 soldiers remained in the 31st Regimental Combat Team, known as Task Force Faith. About 1,000 had been killed, taken prisoner or left to freeze to death. Another 1,500 were incapacitated or removed from the battlefield.
Then-Lt. McCabe said he was lucky; he was part of a group that called themselves the "Chosin Few." He went on to a long career in the military, serving a second tour in Korea and one in Vietnam before retiring as a colonel in 1973. He died of pancreatic cancer Aug. 27 at his home in California, Md., at age 84.
His fellow Chosin soldiers -- poorly trained, ill-equipped and outnumbered 8-1 -- were cut off from a larger Marine force on the west side of the reservoir near Hagaru-ri.
"There were dead Chinese lying all around us, and they were frozen in place," Col. McCabe recalled 50 years later in an interview with The Washington Post.
The Americans had resisted wave upon wave of communist troops attempting to break their perimeter. Finally, by that night, the unit began a large scale evacuation along a snow and ice covered road to the Marines' lines five miles away.
After being struck by the mortar round earlier that day, then-Lt. McCabe laid unconscious in the cold for several hours until he was put in the back of a truck for the convoy headed west.
But the Chinese launched an ambush on the evacuation, blowing up bridges crucial to the American escape. Waiting out the cold in their quilted uniforms and fur hats, the communists opened fire on the Americans, eviscerating the stranded trucks and soldiers with machine guns and mortar fire from the redoubts above the road.
"We were just sitting ducks for the Chinese," Col. McCabe said in 2000, noting he would rather "die before I was taken prisoner."
He scrambled out of the truck and crawled down into a ravine. There, he met up with another group of soldiers and together they hiked the remaining distance to the Marines on foot -- despite the lieutenant's bleeding shrapnel wounds and severely frostbitten toes.
According to historian Roy E. Appleman, author of "East of Chosin: Entrapment and Breakout in Korea, 1950" (1987), the battle's "hallmarks were misery, soul-crushing cold, privation, exhaustion, heroism, sacrifice, leadership of high merit at times, but finally, unit and individual disaster."
Appleman continued, "It would be hard to find a more nearly hopeless or more tragic story in American military history."
For the rest of his life, Col. McCabe carried the wounds of the war with him. He had chunks of shrapnel throughout his body, varying in size from a dime to a quarter, that were visible beneath his skin. Going through airport security, he'd set off metal detectors. And while his arm and leg wounds eventually healed, his toes never regained feeling.
"So many people did so much more than I," Col. McCabe told The Post in 2000. "You come out and say, 'Why the hell did I survive?' "
Jerome Michael McCabe was born July 20, 1926, in Baltimore. He graduated in 1958 from the University of Georgia with a degree in math education and in 1963 received a master's degree in business administration from Babson College in Massachusetts.
In his post-military career, Col. McCabe worked in the private sector for a government defense contractor.
Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Peggy Duginns McCabe of California; five children, J. Michael McCabe of California., Patricia Ruppert of Laytonsville, Timothy McCabe of Phoenix, Mark McCabe of Fountain Valley, Calif., and Peter McCabe of Ashburn; a sister, Anne Margolis of California; 14 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.